Saturday June 23, 2012 – It’s like an animal farm, lots of rural charm, in the country

Our couchsurfing homestay wasn’t quite as advertised. We had booked ahead for a room, but it already had two other people in it the first night. Our host said there had been a “mix-up” with the bookings, but one of the guests, a taciturn Finn with a shaved head, had been there for some time and was staying after we left. They were all decent people, but I was miffed that I didn’t have my own room as promised. Travelling at 38 is different from travelling at 20. We had three days of hiking ahead, and I wanted to be well-rested. Actually, it wasn’t the crowded room so much as the dog outside howling every 20 minutes throughout the night. There are plenty of stray dogs in Irkutsk, and many are friendly, and some are also lonely.

The next morning myself, M. and the Finn made it to the bus stop, the latter telling us about Finland’s generous unemployment benefits which allowed him to travel for a year and get paid afterwards. It was interesting in that he wasn’t political in the slightest – he was in the army and had spent the last 5 months playing Playstation – but he knew how good a strong welfare state is. We crammed into a minibus to get to Lisvyanka, the town on the edge of Lake Baikal. Private minibuses are stretched Chinese and Japanese vans whose owners install extra foldable seats, wait until they’re all taken and then drive to their destination. This one had some Russian folk-rock music playing at considerable volume, the kind where a man growls the lyrics mournfully – I’ve only heard that in Russia. The woman sitting on the tiny cushioned carseat next to me said something to him and he turned it off. “Spasiba”, I said to her. “It gets on nerves,” she replied.

Irkutsk is not only a venerable city centre with Tsarist era buildings, ancient wooden houses and half-built apartment blocks (seriously – Irkutsk would be a city of high-rises if any of them were finished. But most have some windows in, some have concrete poured and 3 or 4 men working on them. At that rate they’ll be done in a decade.) Its suburbs, which we sped by, have giant brick homes even grander than a North American suburb, and new office parks with landscaped parking lots. But no sidewalks, and many roads weren’t paved. Developers only build houses here – perhaps they still expect the state to provide infrastructure, which it isn’t. The free market unleashed is a fascinating, disturbing thing: I passed one new five storey block, with the first three floors plastered with dozens of full-colour placards.

Lisvyanka was much more sedate – basically a road by the lake with souvenir markets, cafes and a couple of commercial buildings, including one 10 storey garish monstrosity which was a new conference centre, painted different shades of orange, and set with gold-reflective windows. They’re proud of it, as I later found a fridge magnet for sale with its image. Set back from the main road were dozens of tumble-down wooden shacks, some much-larger, luxurious wooden houses with gates and lawns – probably guesthouses – and two standard Soviet concrete low-rises, three stories high. They’re exactly the same in every town, which could be cause for joking about Soviet monolithic development, socialism erasing individuality, etc. Except that compared to the surrounding wooden shacks, the Soviet blocks are paradise: running water, electricity, heating – and they’re still standing, unlike the occasional burned-out shack we saw.

We found breakfast in a souvenir market (potato in a panzerotti shell and Nescafe instant coffee), and then, since I was tired, M. suggested we alter our original plans. We had decided to go hiking the first day, then see how I, the non-hiker, felt before moving on to a campground the second day. If that went well we’d end up in a small village on the third day and take the boat back to Irkutsk. But I’ve got a hernia repair still healing, and my level of fitness has dropped since our marathon days in St. Petersburg and Moscow. So M. suggested we take the boat to our first day’s destination, a small village called Bolshey Kotie, then hike in the area the second day, and hike back to Lisvyanka the third. That sounded fine – save the exercise till later. The boat arrived at 13:30 and left at 13:35 – the sign, posted four feet high on the dock and printed in English, was very clear on this, right down to printing the year, month and day for boat travel: May 8 2012 – June 25 2012. Satisfied that we’d found clear information, we hiked up through the ramshackle village to the trailhead, then back, stopping to book a room in a house off the road for Monday, when we’d return from our hike.

The trailhead – not a representative house of Lisvyanka at all:

We got to the dock at 1pm and spent the time chatting with German tourists and watching the dock fill up for the 13:30 boat. I tried to buy some bug spray by going to a cornershop across the road that sold drinks, snacks and toiletries (there were a few, and they all had the same stock). I said “Pashalste – sssshhhh”, making the noise for bug spray and pretending to spray my arm, using my fingers to mimic insects biting my hand. The proprietor laughed but she didn’t have any. … which arrived at 13:45, out of character for a Russian transport. They might be old, creaky and full of arcane rules, but they arrive on time. I lined up with the other tourists and asked the weathered ticket-taker, “Bolshey Kotie?” “Nyet”, he replied, “1 o’clock.” I asked again, he said the same thing again.

We rechecked the schedule: the boat did leave at 1pm, but only after June 26 – four days from now. Given Russians’ predilection for sticking to rules, this was very strange. Worse, it was now 2pm, and there were no other scheduled boats. One of the ‘tourist offices’ offered to take us to Bolshey Kotie in a speedboat for 3000 roubles – $150 for a 6 minute ride. (Tourist office is in quotes because there were a few along the main road, all with the same green sign. But they existed to steer tourists to their private services e.g. when M. asked one about boat schedules, the young woman replied in English that the boat was boring, and we should take an all-day train ride for 500 roubles instead.) (If I keep mentioning ‘in English’, it’s because it’s so rare here.)

The guidebook said the hike took 7 hours. M. thought this was an over-estimate so weak hikers wouldn’t be put off – we could probably do it in five. “OK,” I said, “Then let’s get going.” To the guidebook’s credit, the hike stuck to the description – except that the description was from 2007 and said international volunteers were ‘continually improving’ the trail. I didn’t notice any improvements; there were barely any marker ribbons, felled trees lay across the path, and frequently we had to choose directions based on what was more well-travelled. What had the international volunteers been doing for the past five years? Perhaps just getting in shape for the hike ahead.

A few minutes in and the trail forked into two – or was it three? Some grassy tracks led right, a dirt path led ahead, and a third trail on the left led straight up a hill. The guidebook said the right-hand was for ‘experienced hikers only’ and recommended the left for everyone else. So we took the middle dirt path, guessing that the left one was just a stream bed. If not, the middle was, in fact, the right – I began to wonder, because the trail cut steeply upwards. Soon we were pausing every 20 meters for breath. At one point I said it looked like the trail had levelled out, and M. warned me not to jinx it – sure enough, it started climbing again.

The circl-y effect is unintentional but a neat summary of how I was feeling:

We were ascending the wooded face of a large hill, cutting across it steadily as the land rose to the left for a full hour. That might not seem like a long walk, but uphill, with three days’ supply of clothing, snacks and 2.5 litres of water on my back, it quickly became onerous. But M. had warned me that the first hour of a hike is difficult, and I work out, I know it takes a while to warm up. Indeed, when we reached the top (not a peak, but the trees sloped down on either side), I still had energy to enjoy the glimpses of breathtaking views through the branches. The path markers had faded from orange to white, and there were a couple of forks to choose from, but we found the descent without much fear of getting lost.

The descent was much longer than the ascent, switching back and forth along a steep hill. Insects started finding us en masse; the few mosquitoes from the way up had invited their much larger friends, horse flies that buzzed and divebombed and occasionally landed, trying vainly to bite chunks out of my trousers. It helped to keep moving, and at a certain altitude they abandoned us to smaller predators.

the descent – the hill sloping away steeply:

We reached a stream with a single log crossing it. I knew that swift, decisive action was required: you can’t cross a small log, across swift-flowing water, using tiny steps. I could get across in two steps, one on the log and the next onto the bank; I judged where I’d have to plant my foot, planted it, felt my foot slide smoothly off the wet log and fell chest-down into the water. Apparently when I got up I was smiling, although I suspect that was more a recognition that this kind of thing was inevitably going to happen to the non-hiker. My second thought was for my valuables; my watch had gotten submerged, but my wallet and camera were in the non-streamed pocket. Here I am moments after getting my nice new white t-shirt covered in the stream (don’t ask why I was wearing that – I think I didn’t want to be an unfashionable hiker.)

Another log bridge – the one on the left is like what I tried to step across:

The insects renewed their attack. My shins began to feel like they wanted to split off from my knees, but every time we tried to rest, dozens of insects descended upon us. The path split, and the one along the coast was described as dangerous, only for experienced hikers without heavy packs. So we took the less-dangerous one, climbing steeply back up to the ridge along the lake, where the path was no more than a meter wide, often less, shearing steeply to the water hundreds of feet below. I concentrated on staying level, balancing myself with my arms, not letting fatigue and pain make me lazy – one false step in the wrong place and, no exaggeration, I would slide hundreds of feet down to the shore.

I don’t know if this gives any picture of the height we’re at:

Somehow we rejoined the coastal path, for we found ourselves traversing rocky outcrops with the trail no more than a half-meter wide; I no longer stopped to admire the view and attempted to remain as low to the ground as possible, grabbing any rocky ledges I could find. I was heartened to find a family resting by an outcrop; if the 12 year old girl could manage this far without toppling into the sea far below, so could I.

It doesn’t look like it, but that water is at least 50 meters down:

Look what happened to John Cusak’s grandfather:

The trail levelled, widened and retreated a little from the edge. My shins and back began protesting loudly, but if I stopped to listen, the ravenous biting hordes reappeared. We could see Bolshey Kotie a few bays along the coast, still hazy in the distance – two kilometers away, maybe?

We had been hiking for six hours. I was hungry but didn’t feel like eating, driven by an overwhelming need to reach the destination. My legs hurt so much I could only walk at half-speed. We encountered a few more streams and I waded across, figuring that getting my boots wet was better than chancing slippery single log-crossings again.

Arriving in Bolshey Kotie was a relief, though the town appeared to be a single – well, not street, as there was no paving or even grading, but the wooden houses were arranged in a row. We stopped in the shack with a sign on it, which turned out to be the cafe/grocery/souvenir shop, and a woman told us to keep going “Primo primo primo” – to the left. We walked along the beach, arriving at the last dock before the town ended, which was the hotel’s. The two steep concrete driveways up from the beach had stairs on the side, thankfully, but they were the hardest stairs I’ve ever climbed, seeing as my legs basically didn’t work by this point.

We arrived in the glassed-in front veranda, which also doubled as a dining room. The hosts didn’t speak a word of English of course, but the bubbly woman who ran the place with her quiet husband kept trying, and we soon communicated our reservation, and dinner. We had covered 20 kilometres and hiked for over 7 hours, like the guidebook had promised, and when I sat down I wasn’t getting up again. Dinner was a set menu of borscht with beef bits, boiled potatoes and a pork sausage. I ate it all, washing it down with Baltika 7 (“Seiben”, the woman said – ubiquitous German tourists) – the vegetarian in me too tired and hungry to be offended. It wasn’t bad, though as usual I’ve had better vegetarian faux-sausages.

I had asked M. to promise me a beer and hot shower at the end of this, so that I might sustain myself for the duration of the hike and deal with bitter disappointment afterwards. But there was no disappointment, as the piva (beer) had arrived and there was a hot shower we had to pay extra for. The guest house was empty except for a couple, and we had our own quiet room.

Next post: my anti-nature rant.

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